An extension of ourselves

Yesterday, returning home on the metro, I was (I would like to think) discreetly observing my fellow passengers. Helsinki metros are very pleasant affairs, even the drunks mind their own business and nosey-parkers like myself can indulge our penchant for social voyeurism as long as we don’t invade anyone’s personal space. Across the aisle from me sat two women whom I assumed to be from West Africa judging from their language and from the West African fashion of voluminous hair extensions. One had straight ironed tresses and the other spirals of brown and blonde.

Losing interest in them, I switched to a blonde woman, animatedly speaking Finnish on her mobile as she ran her hand through her hair and in that moment, I caught sight of the tracks of her hair extensions.

I’ve just written a how-to article about natural (afro) hair for my sister blog It’s Natural, I spent a lot of time on “research” on black hair – natural, straightened and extensions. There are a myriad of discussions on why black women straighten their hair and use extensions and the conclusion seems to be it’s because we want to look white.

I disagree with that premise.

The white (Finnish or otherwise) woman on the train illustrates something that is not talked about often enough - that women of all races have a shared reality. I wrote earlier about how slavery and colonialism gave black people a shared identity. While I agree that feminism in its original form marginalised the needs of black women, I think that we should not forget that we are women and that women (of certain personality types) are interested in their appearance, fashion and courting admiration.

That’s where I return to the three women with hair extensions. In my opinion, black women seek straight hair because the quest for beauty is essentially about the quest for the unobtainable. In this case the discussion arises because black women are trying to achieve what appear to be white traits – long or straight. On the contrary, when I Googled “hair extensions” my first three image pages are of white women, predominantly blonde.

Looking at all the European descendent women on that train, how many of them have the long, thick, luxurious locks that scream at us from L’Oreal advertisements? How many makeover shows turn one’s dry, thinning mane into deliciously voluminous richly coloured tresses? How many of those made-over hair styles will still look as good without copious amounts of money and specialised attention?

The pursuit of perceived perfection is not unique to black women straightening their hair. It’s something familiar to any woman struggling to become that elusive UK size 6 or learning to be confident, flirty, a perfect mother and a full time and fashionable professional.

However, when something is associated with black women, the rest of world, Chris Rock included, needs to find an exotic explanation something that furthers the world’s perception of us as the “other” even if white women wear extensions too. 

Cross posted on It's Natural

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